Dairy Calf Weaning/Co-Mingling Practices for Better Profit

By James Grothe, Dairy Beef Specialist
Weaning and/or co-mingling are probably two of the most stressful times in the early life of dairy calves. Many things change for calves at this time, causing stress that can compromise the strength of their immune systems. To improve this process, I’ve outlined some practices to keep in mind:

  • The first thing to remember is that weaning and co-mingling are two separate stresses that usually happen at the same time. Weaning is actually when milk feeding is stopped. Co-mingling is when the calf is put in a pen setting with other calves. These two events together are usually considered “weaning” and bring major change (stress) to the calf. To maintain best performance, producers need to pay attention to the way the weaning/co-mingling process is handled. By “performance” we mean both overall health and weight gain since they mimic each other during this time. To reduce the number of stresses, do not change the feeding program when the calf leaves the individual hut or stall and goes to a pen setting. This will help keep them on feed, which means they will have the energy needed to fight stress. Along those same lines, never vaccinate, castrate, and dehorn the same day as you remove milk and put calves in a group setting. Perform these procedures a week before. Something else to remember is that when the calves are in an individual setting the water and feed are brought to them every day, twice a day. So, after moving calves to a pen setting it is best to bunk feed and check them more frequently the first week. This will help the calves adjust to the changes in feeding and watering.
  • The next question is what ration to feed. The answer is, a protein concentrate designed for calves (not a 38% dairy or feedlot ration). This is critical to achieving proper nutrient density for the calf. I recommend Precision Dairy Beef Grower with Rumensin. Rumensin offers coccidiosis control and prevention, and enhances feed efficiency. Mix it with whole corn to reduce fines and improve intake. The calves will have to chew the whole corn, improving digestion and efficiency; plus it increases saliva production, which is also better for digestion. Make sure calves can eat and drink comfortably. Keep the waterer and bunks low enough for them to reach and not too deep. The best way to determine this is to watch the calves drink and eat. If unimpeded, then the positioning is okay, but if calves have to stretch for feed and/or water, or it looks awkward for them, reposition the equipment. Remember that intake is key to good performance!
  • Another critical factor is calf comfort. Don’t overcrowd them, by allowing at least 20 square feet per calf. Keep them clean and dry with lots of good bedding. It is best to have fewer than 10 calves per pen for the first week, but not always practical. Be aware that bigger group pens will usually result in more health issues; so checking calves regularly is critical. Air quality is a key factor in good overall health. Fresh, dry air is better than damp, warm air. At this time of year, shade is also very important.

Data collected from an operation using the above practices on Wisconsin Sale Barn calves showed calf weights of 400 pounds in 133 days, with a 2.29 ADG and 2.79 feed per pound of gain. It recorded less than a 2% death loss in more than 1,600 calves per year. So it can be done, but you can’t cut corners or push the stress level too far. Following these suggested practices and Kent’s Precision Calf Feeding Program can result in great performance and improved profit.